DeSantis suggests more culture war battles to come as he opens legislative session

The governor makes the first State of the State speech of his second term.
Gov. Ron DeSantis waves as he gives his State of the State address during a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives on Tuesday.
Gov. Ron DeSantis waves as he gives his State of the State address during a joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives on Tuesday. [ PHIL SEARS | AP ]
Published March 7|Updated March 8

TALLAHASSEE — Proclaiming “You ain’t seen nothing yet,” Gov. Ron DeSantis used the first State of the State speech of his second term Tuesday to aim at a national political audience and give a nod to a cooperative Republican-led Legislature that vowed to work together to pass his agenda.

“We defied the experts. We buck the elites. We ignored the chatter. We did it our way, the Florida way,’’ DeSantis declared as lawmakers gaveled in their annual 60-day legislative session.

The 30-minute address was markedly less political than his recent speeches at fundraisers and book talks around the country with the release last week of his political memoir, “The Courage to be Free.” But DeSantis hinted at more political skirmishes to come as he puts Florida at the forefront of the battlefield of the culture wars as the Legislature has already proposed a slate of bills that keep it there.

Related: DeSantis’ sway over Florida Legislature unprecedented ahead of 2024 bid

“I can promise you this, you ain’t seen nothing yet,” he concluded.

Within minutes of the opening session, Republicans filed a bill sought by the governor that imposes new penalties on organizations that help immigrants who are in the country illegally, and another bill to reduce the ban on abortions from 15 weeks to six in Florida, even though the 15-week ban is still pending a ruling from the Florida Supreme Court.

In his speech, the governor made no mention of expanding the abortion ban, and unlike Republican governors in other states, did not offer to provide assistance to new parents except for a sales tax exemption for diapers.

“Having a child will be tax-free,” he said. “We are proud to be pro-family, and we are proud to be pro-life in the state of Florida.”

But at a rare news conference with Capitol reporters after his speech, DeSantis called the proposed abortion bill “sensible” and that he welcomes “pro-life legislation.” He said the timing of the ban “is less (about the) week than the fact that there’s a detectable heartbeat,” DeSantis said.

Related: Bill banning abortion after 6 weeks filed in Florida Legislature

The proposed ban, which would add Florida to the list of Republican-run states with the strictest abortion bans, was immediately pounced on by Democrats, including the White House, which called it a direct attack on women’s freedom.

“Florida Republicans have gone scorched earth with what is effectively an all-out abortion ban — with threats to criminalize women and their doctors,” said Sen. Lauren Book of Plantation, the Senate Democratic leader.

Rep. Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, warned that the measure will backfire on Republicans.

“I think they have bitten off more than they can chew,” she said. “I do not think that Floridians are going to be happy about this.”

Legislature lining up with DeSantis’ agenda

The opening day marks the point when political platitudes become bill language and the Legislature’s agenda for the session is intended to give DeSantis policy wins ahead of an expected GOP presidential primary clash with former President Donald Trump.

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Republican lawmakers have also proposed bills banning diversity, equity and inclusion programs as well as gender studies in the state university and state college systems. They would allow tenure reviews of faculty members and allow the governor to control the hiring of professors and control the board that oversees high school athletics in the state. Other bills would weaken laws protecting journalists from lawsuits, allow a death sentence without a unanimous jury and let people carry concealed guns without an additional permit or training.

Lawmakers are also willing to follow up on the governor’s effort to restrict LGBTQ rights with legislation that targets drag shows and treatment for transgender minors, and they propose extending the classroom ban on discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity to eighth grade.

DeSantis made no mention of President Joe Biden, except to note the administration “is suing the Biden administration over its catch-and-release policies,” a reference to the federal practice of releasing migrants into the community as they await an immigration hearing.

He noted that Florida has transported “illegal aliens to sanctuary jurisdictions” but did not refer to the bill filed Tuesday that will prohibit local municipalities from providing funds to entities that issue identification to immigrants living in the country illegally and require hospitals that accept Medicaid to ask patients whether they are “lawfully present in the United States.”

No ‘woke’ references this time

DeSantis made no mention of the word “woke” in his speech, a label that he has given to corporations, Big Tech companies and the media. He has proclaimed that Florida is “where woke goes to die.”

Of the 19 Republican governors who have already delivered their annual State of the State speech, only one — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott — has echoed DeSantis’ use of the word “woke.”

“Schools are for education, not indoctrination. Schools should not push woke agendas,” Abbott said in his Feb. 16 State of the State address.

DeSantis said that Florida is the fastest-growing state in the nation and that under his leadership, it has “ranked No. 1 for net in-migration. We ranked No. 1 in the nation for new business formations. We are No. 1 in economic growth among large states.”

“We have enacted record increases in teacher salaries,” he said, and “provided robust support for K-12 education.”

He told reporters he was also open to cutting funding from state universities and colleges to enforce his crackdown on diversity, equity and inclusion programs.

Seated in the audience next to his wife, Casey, and young son, Mason, were several Floridians whom he said benefited from his policies. Included was Florida’s teacher of the year Melissa Anne Matz of Clay County, residents of Sanibel Island whose home was destroyed by Hurricane Ian, a Panama City doctor who has criticized the coronavirus vaccine, and a woman who took puberty blockers and had a double mastectomy as a teenager in her effort to transition but has since detransitioned.

“Our children are not guinea pigs for science experimentation, and we cannot allow people to make money off mutilating them,” DeSantis said.

What DeSantis didn’t say

DeSantis’ speech did not mention many of the issues on the minds of many Floridians: the rising costs of housing, property insurance, utility rates or the teacher shortage. He did not address the 900,000 Floridians who will start to lose health insurance through Medicaid in April or the predictions of another summer of toxic algae blooms.

He echoed many of the themes of his previous state speeches, such as declaring Florida would not be a sanctuary state for immigrants arriving in the country illegally, even though during his term there have never been any local governments in the state operating as sanctuary cities.

He called on lawmakers to “join 25 other states to enact constitutional carry,” a reference to the fast-moving bill to remove the requirement for gun owners to carry a permit or receive training to carry a concealed weapon.

Related: DeSantis says he supports open carry in audio recorded from gun rights group

He promised to continue the private school voucher expansion he began when he was first elected, and vowed to extend the state ban on coronavirus vaccine and mask mandates in government and businesses.

“We have rejected the biomedical security state in Florida and have provided protections for Floridians against unwanted medical interventions, but those protections are set to expire in July,” he said. “It’s important that we make all of these protections. Permanent protection from medical authoritarianism should not have an expiration date in the free state of Florida.”

Like other governors across the nation, DeSantis urged legislators “to increase penalties for fentanyl dealers.” One pending bill will impose the death penalty on certain drug crimes.

He made no mention of the legislation he has backed that would ban banks and investment firms from what he calls “woke” investing aimed at reducing climate change or increasing social equity.

DeSantis didn’t mention a measure he has backed to make it easier to sue media outlets for defamation, but at the start of his news conference he expressed annoyance at the fact that he is being linked to proposed legislation filed by Republicans. He said he did not support a bill filed by Republican state Sen. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, that would require bloggers who write about elected officials to register with the state.

Much has changed since the governor’s first State of the State speech in 2019. Since then, DeSantis has led the state through a pandemic and won reelection with a commanding margin.

“November’s election results represent a vindication of our joint efforts over these past four years,” he said.

In brief remarks to the Senate, Senate President Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, called DeSantis “America’s governor” and “under the leadership of Gov. DeSantis, Florida is more than a laboratory. We are a model.”

House Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, also used a brief speech to call DeSantis “America’s governor” and promised “transformational results.”

“We will continue to address affordability concerns through substantial tax relief,” Renner said, and touted the business-backed effort to restrict lawsuits against businesses, which he called a tax on Floridians. Renner also promised to impose stiffer penalties on gun-related crimes, promised to expand gun laws and was the only one to hint at the pursuit of stricter abortion laws.

Democrats, who begin the session with fewer members than last year after losing 11 seats in the House and Senate, are in the weakest position since 2011 when Republicans last had a supermajority. As DeSantis was soaring to a 19-point victory, Democrats lost four seats in the state Senate and seven seats in the state House. There’s one open seat in a GOP-favored House district.

“By my Democratic view, much of this has been put at risk by the divisive agenda of a governor vying to be the most conservative in the nation,” said Book, the Senate Democratic leader.

She repeated the criticism that the governor’s election-focused agenda fails to address problems they consider more pressing for Floridians, such as low wages, high costs of home ownership, health care and car and property insurance.

“It’s true, Florida’s economy is booming, but from the Southernmost Point to the Gulf shores, working people continue to struggle,” Book said. “When teachers and first responders can’t afford to live in the communities they serve, it’s time to ask, ‘Why?’”

Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reporters Ana Ceballos, Lawrence Mower and Romy Ellenbogen contributed to this report.

Correction: This story has been updated to correct the number of Senate seats that Democrats lost and to note that there is one open House seat.

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